While University administrators told the Yale community that School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund resigned from his post, Yale did not renew Vermund’s five-year contract, but instead offered him a three-year one — which some faculty at the School of Public Health say is non-standard and an attempt to push Vermund from the role.
Vermund’s decision to step down was announced in an Oct.19 email from University President Peter Salovey to the Yale community. The email said that Vermund was choosing to return to his teaching position at the School of Public Health, but included no mention of his attenuated contract offer. In all other cases, Yale’s graduate and professional school deans are renewed for five-year contracts or not asked to continue in the role. On Friday, University Provost Scott Strobel and Yale School of Medicine Dean Nancy Brown hosted a Zoom meeting open to the YSPH community. But the meeting was quickly derailed by faculty who pressed Strobel and Brown on the causes behind Vermund’s departure, according to three meeting attendees.
“It is not credible that someone who cut his teeth caring for AIDS babies in the burned out Bronx in the ’80s would cut and run in another pandemic,” Gregg Gonsalves ’11 GRD ’17, associate professor of epidemiology, wrote in the chat section of the Zoom meeting, according to screenshots obtained by the News. “It is quite credible that as part of a “cleaning house” at the med school Sten was not offered a new full term, as many other heads have rolled at the med school over the past 18 months.”
During the meeting, a number of faculty members accused Strobel and Brown of “pushing [Vermund] out,” according to two School of Public Health affiliates who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fears over job security.
Responding to the accusations, Brown explained on the Zoom call that administrators had sent out a survey to all YSPH faculty and staff and, having reviewed the results, chose to offer Vermund only a three-year contract, as opposed to the standard five-year contract for a dean.
The School of Public Health is one of two University schools that is structured within another school, meaning that Vermund reports to Brown, while other Yale deans report directly to Strobel.
The School is currently in the midst of multiple department chair searches, a re-accreditation process and the University has embarked on a major fundraising push, Gonsalves wrote in an email to the News. “Was this really the time to leave YSPH without a leader?” he wrote.
“There is nothing here that suggests to me that Sten Vermund stepped down,” said A. David Paltiel, professor of public health and management. “This was simply a case of his not being renewed.”
He added that there were many people at the meeting who “were very angry” about the decision not to renew Vermund’s contract.
In an email to the News, Vermund spoke of his excitement to return to teaching and declined to comment further on the circumstances regarding his departure.
“I am stepping down to concentrate on my research in prevention and control of infectious diseases, teaching in our onsite and online graduate courses, and contributing to the community service mission of YSPH,” Vermund wrote.
Brown did not respond to the News’ inquiries regarding Vermund’s departure.
“Yale School of Medicine values our close partnership with Yale School of Public Health and never more so than after the last 18 months,” Brown wrote in an email to the News. “We share many faculty members and collaborate extensively. YSM benefits when YSPH is strong.”
Howard Forman, School of Public Health professor, said that Vermund’s shorter contract offer seemed like a punishment for the dean.
“The problem when you offer somebody a short term, is you’re basically holding their feet to the fire for some reason… [it’s] sort of like probationary and it shows that there’s not a full throated support,” Forman said.
Forman added that the process regarding Vermund’s resignation was unusual and that Vermund’s decision seemed “sudden” and “unexpected. In standard dean turnover processes, Forman said, there is a multi-month procedure that begins with University leadership announcing that they are looking for a new dean and soliciting a wide array of faculty input.
He further added that it is highly unusual for a dean to leave after just one term, especially one who is as popular as Vermund.
“I do know that as of a few weeks ago… in all of our conversations, he was deeply committed to advancing the school,” Forman said. “I cannot remember a dean stepping down when there was so much support for him and where nobody had actually reached out to the people most affected to get feedback before it happened. So it is an unusual situation. And I do think the University is a lesser university for removing him at this point.”
Albert Ko, a professor at the School of Public Health, said that he views Vermund’s departure as a shame, and attributed the decision to the University.
“All I can say is many of us, including myself, would have looked forward to having Dean Vermund as our Dean for the next five years,” Ko said. “And… this was not his decision not to continue. It was the decision of the University.”
Gonsalves wrote in an email to the News that University leadership has failed to properly articulate the future of the School of Public Health.
He further said that the future of the School of Public Health has broad implications for the rest of the country, given its role in fighting the pandemic.
“For the past few months they have brazenly offered us platitudes about the importance of public health at this university, which is in stark contrast to years of neglect of the school, even in the midst [of] the worst pandemic in over a century,” Gonsalves said.
Paltiel similarly questioned what the School’s direction would be over the coming years. He questioned who would chair the search for Vermund’s replacement, and whether the person would be in a position to search for a national figure, rather than an “insider caretaker.”
In the announcement of Vermund’s stepping down, Salovey wrote that he will form an advisory committee to aid with the search for a new dean, which will “seek broad input from School of Public Health faculty, students, staff, and alumni.” He further added that the university will retain an search firm to support the process
Forman added that, in his opinion, there is “absolutely nothing” that could explain Vermund’s sudden departure. If anything, Forman said, the opposite should be the case, with the University renewing Vermund’s contract and “praying” that he stays as dean.
During the pandemic, the School has proven itself a major player in fighting COVID-19. Most notably, scientists at the YSPH developed SalivaDirect, a COVID-19 testing mechanism used around the country and by the NBA. Faculty at the YSPH have also aided in informing the public and the government in navigating the country through the pandemic. During the Friday meeting, Gonsalves wrote that the school was doing well by all metrics, notwithstanding finances.
The School of Public Health has long faced significant financial shortfalls, which were exacerbated by the pandemic and sometimes occupied researchers in writing grants instead of studying COVID-19. According to Friday’s meeting, the school is in $2.6 million of debt this year alone.
“We balanced the budget a few years ago, but have not been able to keep revenues above expenditures,” Vermund wrote in an email to the News. “To ensure affordability of a YSPH education for our students, we plow much of our tuition money back into scholarships since our endowment only funds 13% of our operating budget, the lowest of any school at Yale by far.”
Melinda Irwin, YSPH Deputy Dean, said that in order to restore their finances, the School will likely need to rely on “very large gifts” or other donations.
Jackson Higginbottom, a program administrator within the School of Public Health, said that the School needs more money from the central University. The School of Public Health is one of the University’s seven self-supporting schools, which means that it pays the central University to use the Yale name and facilities. YSPH is one of the least well-endowed schools at Yale. As of last December, the school had only 0.6 percent of Yale’s endowment.
“The University needs to put more money into the School of Public Health, because that’s the only way we’re going to continue to be a top school in the nation,” Higginbottom said.
Brown told the News that Yale School of Medicine financially supports the School by covering its annual budget deficit and funding certain research expenses. But Paltiel said that during Friday’s meeting, one attendee noted that $2.5 million was a relatively small sum for the School of Medicine to cover.
“The endowment went up $11 billion, and the medical school is paying $30 million in stolen iPads,” he said.
Vermund’s term as dean of Yale School of Public Health began on Feb. 1, 2017.
Correction, Oct. 26 This article has been updated to reflect that, according to Brown, a survey regarding Vermund’s reappointment as dean was sent out to all YSPH faculty and staff prior to his contract offer. The article previously said that the survey was sent to select faculty and staff members.